Friday, March 16, 2007

What's on the Cards

To the unrefined and under-bred, the visiting card is but a trifling bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of its leaving combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude..."
- `Our Deportment', 1881.

The cards of unmarried and married men should be small [about 1.25" by 3"]. For married persons a medium size is in better taste than a large card. The engraving in simple writing is preferred, and without flourishes. Printed letters, large or small, are very commonplace, no matter what the type may be. The `Mr' before the name should be dispensed with by young men.
- `Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture', 1882

They come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them are variations of 9 cm x 3.5 cm or thereabouts. Some are twice or even thrice as large, but they too fold neatly into these dimensions.

At business meetings and formal parties, after breaking the ice if not to break the ice, executives swap their visiting cards. Would you believe that the 32 sq cm visiting card nestling in your wallet is capable of making a fashion statement, of spreading a corporate image?

Look at the variety: some are bilingual, some have mug-shots printed on them, some are in the form of CDs, some are made on palmyra leaf, some have both sides printed, and some have just the name of the owner.

People carry cards that suit their deportment. Take, for instance, Sudipto Bose, a Calcutta businessman who runs two small-scale units, a financial services company and a communications centre, and is the secretary of the Automobile Association of India. When you hand over your visiting card to him, Bose fishes into his wallet and gives you the card that he thinks describes him best and in a mutually useful manner.

At the other end of the spectrum is the former chief of an airline company. This man, with infinite self-importance, wants people to take the arduous path of seeking him out. That brings us to the office etiquette - it is the person in the subordinate position (read `seeker of favour') who offers his card. The `superior' never offers his card - "You may collect it from my secretary" - that is, if he has not taken umbrage at your request!

Irrespective of their position in the company, employees of most of the modern corporates such as Pepsi, AT&T, Boeing and Novartis have visiting cards that are identical in style, font and colour - only the employee-specific details vary. (A far cry from that of many public sector banks where the cards of no two colleagues match!) In fact, it is a requirement in most modern corporates that the stated technical specifications are met. For instance, the visiting card flaunted by George Jacob, owner of Purackal Motors, the Kottayam Dealer of Hero Honda, is identical to that of Brij Mohan Munjal, chairman of the company that makes those `magnificent machines'.

The visiting cards of the executives of a well-known software company has rather unconventional designations printed below the names - like `chief evangelist' who is in charge of scouting for new business. Well, in a way, he is trying to preach and convert people!

In these days of economic downturn, cash-strapped corporates find it impossible to offer monetary or other tangible compensations. They have found a way out - a process the U.K. corporates call `uptitling' - giving their employees fancy designations that they can show off on their visiting cards. A receptionist is re-branded as the `head, verbal telecommunications', and the window-cleaner is given the impressive designation of `optical illumination enhancer'. The new `stock replenishment executive' in the supermarket is your shelf-stacker and the `technical sanitation assistant' is the one who cleans the toilets.

In a classic case of `down-titling', if one could coin such a word, the calling card of Thomas Bata, the Czechoslovakian patriarch of the eponymous footwear titan, describes him in a matter-of-fact manner as `chief shoe salesman'. Could one say more?

The calling card of film star Ajit is reputed to have just for letters on them - A J I T. Some other celebrities who believe that the name says it all too have followed suit.

Swinging to the other extreme, the visiting cards of most of those working for the public sector are cluttered with information - and they are bilingual to boot - official language rules, you see! An innovative public sector bank executive based in Delhi has found an easy way out - her cards have Hindi on one side and English on the other. When she has to interact with the politicos who are rabidly fanatical about the Raashtra bhaasha, she proffers the card with the Hindi side up! At other times, it is the English version that is exposed.

It is not just paper that cards are printed on. Thick cards are making way for the thin, if environment-unfriendly, plastic cards that sit lightly on your wallet. An exporter of handicrafts has his cards printed on dried leaves of the banyan tree - very delicate and fragile. He has a sturdier variety in laminated donne-ka-patta - the dried leaves they serve food in.

It is small surprise that in this age of technology, visiting cards have taken on the role of presentation tools. The card of G. D. Agarwal of Koch-Rajes CD Industries of Mumbai, is a compact disc giving all information on his company in the form of a power point presentation. The flamboyant liquor baron, Vijay Mallya, too has a CD for his visiting card.

Coming to odd shapes, the owner of a hotel boasting of ethnic Kerala food, has had his card custom-made; it has yellow letters on a leaf-green card shaped like a plantain-leaf! The representatives of the `Round Table', a Hyderabad-based event management team, carry cards that are - you guessed it right - circular!

What do you do when someone gives you his card? Wallow in the comfortable feeling that it contains all that you wanted to know about him, put it in your pocket and give one of yours? Wait a moment. The Japanese consider it an insult if one were to do that. Courtesy demands that you receive the meishi with both hands, `treat it with respect', that is, study the contents carefully, and then put it into a special wallet, the only purpose of which is the storage of visiting cards. When handing over your own, it should be done with both hands in a way that he or she will be able to read the card without turning it around.

So, the next time you place orders for your visiting card or accept the card from a person you are introduced to, remember that it is not as simple as it appears...

Caught and Bowled...

A bunch of young collegians in Thiruvananthapuram, sipping the cuppa in an eatery, conducted an informal survey to identify the most admired living legend of India.

The range of answers they came up with was amazing; from the country's first citizen to business tycoons such as Anil Ambani, the survey covered practically every activity of human endeavour - politics, literature, arts, you name it. Entertainment industry claimed a fair share, so did sports.

The clear winner was Sachin Tendulkar. The self-appointed leader of the survey was prepared to bet 10 to one: the majority in any group of city youth, when asked this question, will come up with the name of the `little master'.

Fast forward to September 2003. The same bunch of collegians decides to repeat the exercise, with a shift in focus. What do they think of the letter Tendulkar wrote to Pramod Mahajan and Jaswant Singh? Is it as clean as the straight drives he is famous for?

First, the facts. Formula One speedster Michael Schumacher presents a Ferrari car to Tendulkar. The cricketer writes to the Ministers seeking waiver of the import duty, varyingly estimated from Rs. 1.5 to Rs. 2.5 crores. Mahajan writes back to him saying that on the eve of his 100th test, as a `small gesture', the Government was waiving the duty. All that this waiver gets is a little print-space in the dailies.

But a veteran cartoonist lampoons the largesse. This sparks off a petition before the Delhi High Court, and the order is repealed. In a quick series of events, Fiat, the makers of Ferrari, decides to bear the duty. The story does not end there, but we have to get back to our young friends who conducted the survey. "By allowing the tax waiver, the nation is gratefully acknowledging the glory that the player brought," says Zareena, an ardent fan of Tendulkar. "After all, he is not the first to benefit from such generosity. Remember the `Champion of Champions' Audi that Ravi Shastri was awarded in 1985?"

"But you're forgetting that the Audi was a cricketing award and the Ferrari a gift from a business partner," reacts Ranjit, alluding to the fact that both the celebrities are brand ambassadors of the automobile giant. A pertinent question: "Was it really a gift from Schumi or was it merely presented by him on behalf of Fiat?"

Think hard, and you'll discover the pattern: this is perhaps another form of the fee paid to the batsman for endorsing the Palio. By having it presented by the world racer who endorses the dream car, Ferrari (also from the Fiat stable), a strong message is being signalled: Fiat India is part of the large group.

"A plausible argument," agrees automobile buff Murugan. Competition from new generation cars has nearly got the better of the Indian car manufacturer, badly in need of an image makeover. And this association would indeed help.

"An important issue we have to consider is whether Sachin needs the waiver," says another teenager. He is arguably the richest sportsperson in India today with a personal net estimated at Rs. 20 crores. He makes millions of dollars endorsing everything from soft drinks to credit cards. Compared with the humungous sum he earns through a landmark endorsement contract with WorldTel, what he rakes in from his classy eponymous restaurant in Mumbai is just pocket money!

"This is the limit," shrugs a disgusted Venky Aruna. "Is there no end to what a rich and famous cricketer could ask for and get from a poor country?" she asks, and with good reason. Look at how it treats other disciplines that desperately need support.

Aruna recalls a press report that said a consignment of toys sent to a Kolkata orphanage by an American donor was returned because the duty was not waived.

One who can have a Ferrari in his garage can well pay the import duty, which in turn would go to improve the roads he drives it on. The Government, keen on dishing out such largesse to Tendulkar, turns a blind eye towards other sports such as hockey, weightlifting or shooting; `Khel Ratna' awardees have to share the pittance due. The Government is tight-fisted when it comes to bringing succour to doyens in art, music or literature and does not grant duty exemption even on lifesaving drugs.

The wish in the hearts of the millions of cricket buffs on his 100th test bears testimony to Tendulkar's popularity. The prayers on the lips of his innumerable fans on hearing that he had torn a ligament on his finger were fervent. Many, however, feel that this practitioner of the gentleman's game has not exactly been gentlemanly in seeking exemption from the duty. "By writing that letter, the hero of the nation's youth has fallen," feels Anita.

There are people who still have a soft corner for Tendulkar. Why single him out for asking a favour, they ask. Have not special concessions such as income tax waiver and out-of-turn allotment of houses, land and other scarce economic goods been part of the patronage to heroes? If it was not merited, it should have been rejected. Be angry with the Government, not at Sachin, they say.

"We send out a flood of get-well messages when he is hurt and shout hoorays when he equals Donald Bradman because we adore Sachin. When such a darling seeks an undue favour, he falls in our esteem. Let's face it, being the object of a billion people's adoration is a tough job," a fan of Sachin says.

Tailpiece: When Zia ul-Haq was President, a member of the Pakistani cricket team who had won a car abroad, requested him to waive the duty. Zia's answer was: 'I won't waive the duty for you, but I'll pay it on your behalf.' -- A story whose authenticity is doubtful.

T is for Trivandrum...

A is for Attukal Pongala and Aarattu procession that provide the office-goer with a `god-sent' (pun intended) opportunity to bunk work. It also stands for the ancient automobiles, which trundle along as the swanky limos zoom past them.

B is for bonji (the authentic pronunciation is bwaanchi), the mildly salted and sweetened lemon drink -- the official beverage of the native. Also, for the beef that is sold as mutton.

C is for the cleanliness drives, which start from (and in most cases end in) Kaudiar. Also for the cutting that is done to the newly-repaired roads for laying, repairing, replacing of cables, pipes or whatever.

D is for the doctors who refuse to make house calls though the patient is critical and has been under his care for ages. It also stands for the drains that clog at the slightest hint of the cirrus cloud appearing on the azure blue sky.

E is for the extra care we take. Children in other cities do not have to be picked up and dropped by parents working in Mantralaya and Writers' Building, but we'll hear none of these. It is also for the electricity cut, which, a friend says, brings the family together.

F is for the footwear you are apt to lose if you leave them in a place where people throng - temples, weddings and funerals. F also stands for the front-office staff who bury their heads in the files or ledgers, ostrich-like, when a customer's shadow darkens the doorway.

G is for the garbage, which is meant to be thrown over the boundary wall (when nobody is looking) into the neighbour's compound or out into the public road depending on the cross-border cordiality. It also stands for the gardens, which refuse to be beautified despite humungous sums of money being spent by the Corporation.

H is for the high decibel generated in the Legislative Complex, which should, paradoxically, be a scene of quiet efficiency. It is also for the high-handedness that comes naturally to our public servants.

I is for indoors where, judging by the deserted roads, the entire city seems to spend its Sundays and holidays. It is also for introversion; witness the grim faces at the bus stops and film festivals.

J is for jams - not of the breakfast variety. Traffic jams, to be more precise, and the jaathaas that create them, never mind that the people marching along carrying placards and flags and would have just 14 rows if they were to march in Indian file.

K is for the kerchief you drop through the window of the bus to reserve the seat you intend to occupy. It is also for kameez, which our girls (and women - and boys and men) stupidly refer to as churidar with supremely hilarious results - imagine a sleeveless churidar!

L is for the lame excuses offered for coming late to the office - the road is under repair, the bus broke down, my sister's father-in-law twisted his ankle. L also stands for the lakhs of people who are hired by political parties to shout slogans for them.

M is for the milk we ask for and the gooey mass of curdled bio-product we get, though the vendors might claim that they have six sigma ratings. It is also for the marketing technique we have to learn from our counterparts elsewhere, so that we do not ask a prospective buyer to specify the brand, size, colour, textile, pattern number and price of the ready-made shirt he has in mind.

N is for newspaper vendors who refuse to deliver the English newspapers on days when there is no issue of the Malayalam dailies.

O is for the occupied seat in the bus, which, you, being a regular, know, will be vacated by the present occupant at the third stop from here. Also for the optimism that he has not changed his plans and decided to call on his mother-in-law!

P is for the plural, which we just cannot flush out of our system - (Witness the Housing Board Buildings, yes, Buildings), a baggage we carry from the vernacular. It also stands for the plastic bags of all hues and colours, which, though banned, are used as festoons and buntings by political parties of all hues and colours.

Q is for the queues, which we are loath to form and which we deftly jump when the moment of reckoning comes. Q is also for the quality we swear by, but would be pardoned for swearing at.

R is for the recognition that you rarely find on the face of the parent of your five-year old's classmate though every day both of you spend 15 minutes together at the bus stop waiting for the school bus. R is also for the reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic skills our children are supposed to acquire, but do not, going by the poor share we get in competitive examinations.

S is for the speed breakers that sprout overnight in the cantonment at Pangode with predictable regularity. Also, for the scholars who delve into matters beyond the mundane - such as post-colonialism and feudalist construct.

T is for the two-wheelers, which apparently have been fitted with a mechanism that prevents overtaking from the right. Also, for the topping that is done to the road surfaces just before the monsoons (to gauge its intensity) or the elections.

U is for the Uroos festival, which gives an afternoon off to the office-goers in the same way as ... (Please go back to A.) It is also for the umbrella you forget in buses.

V is for the VSSC vehicles (not to forget the sarkaari vehicles, the ministers' sedans and police jeeps, which every user of the road owes his life to.) And for the variety of vegetable we sadly lack in, compared with other cities.

W is for the weddings, which have become a benchmark in ostentation and extravagance. It also stands for the weekends, which, if prefixed/suffixed by holidays, are suffixed/prefixed by leave (most of the French variety) so that you can make a quick dash to your mother.

X is for the X-ray clinics, owned by wives of doctors, to which you are referred when you have indigestion because you over-indulged yourself with paayasam made at home for your granddaughter's birthday.

Y is for you and your sense of balance - you have not lost your cool; lesser mortals would have succumbed to just a few of these factors.

Z is for the character the cartoonists employ to indicate that the subject of his lampoon is being transported to slumberland - which, many are under the mistaken notion, is another name for a Government office.

(Epilogue: No offence meant, this is just frolic and banter. As they say in the North during Holi, `Buraa Mat Maano, Holi hai!')

What is the Good Word?

Most of us have, at one time or the other, faced a situation when we looked for a word that could effectively express what we had in mind but realised there wasn't any.

Like, a word for a song, a thought, a word or a phrase. Is there a word for that? No. How about `Cerebroredundogram'? Recall the words cerebral, redundancy and gram and the meaning can be inferred. What do you call the incessant and actual chanting of a `cerebroredundogram'? The word you are looking for is `humnausea' from hum and ad nauseam. Taking off in a different direction, the annoyance you feel when you're certain you set your alarm clock but it didn't go off is `indichronation' from indignation and chronometer. The word also applies to watch alarms and digital reminders on the computer.

If you want a list of such words, all you have to do is to refer to the `nonsensicon', an on-line dictionary/encyclopaedia (a `dictopedia'?) of words that don't exist (or the existence of which is in doubt). There are some words that have acceptability within certain limited geographical boundaries. Some are words that have been resurrected. Almost all other words are fabricated. Let us look at a few such examples.

The word `bloviate' is used for describing the way people talk verbosely and windily, like politicians. Believe it or not, the word was used in the 1600's. Take the verb `banjax'. To be `banjaxed' is to be unexpectedly prevented from achieving an objective. It is a word familiar, if not well-known, in Ireland, meaning `irretrievably broken', as in the usage - `this computer is banjaxed'. Some are brilliant examples of portmanteau words. Like `yurp', which is to let a burp slip out in the middle of a big yawn. Or `wobter', an airborne craft that causes severe motion sickness, from `wobble' and `copter'.

The fury that you experience when you open your e-mail box, only to find it full of useless forwarded e-mail, is called `spamger' from spam and anger. The telephone rings, as it inevitably does, when you are occupied in the bathroom. Your wife says, "Joe's on the line" and you reply, "Tell him I can't talk to him it right now. I'm `occupated'." The word comes from occupied and constipated.

Some are absolutely useless words, in the sense you may never get a chance to use them. The action of blowing over a pencil after having removed it from the sharpener is called `penciventilation'. And a `septopus' is an octopus with a birth defect.

There are fabricated words such as `xoox', the name for the centre box in a game of tic-tac-toe.
`Unobtainium' is the perfect material for the job, but does not exist, or cannot be had. You are writing an examination and you are just in the middle of a sentence. The professor says, "Time's up!" The sentence you were on and have to leave unfinished is called the `sente'.

One could trace the etymology of most of the words. There are some that defy any such rationale. `Thudgle' is one such. It is any quantity of a food which somehow gets on your body, as in the usage - "I have a thudgle of ketchup on my sleeve." Or `thwithy', which means sick to one's stomach, due to travel, as in -- "After riding on the rickety bus for three hours, I was bound to feel thwithy."

The condition when one giggles uncontrollably for no apparent reason especially during inconvenient times, is called `simples' as in, "about an hour into the meeting, she got the simples so bad she had to leave the room."

The need for these words is certainly felt, as demonstrated by the fact that some of these words have gained entry into the recent editions of some of the dictionaries.

The Silver Lining in Power Cuts

And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. -- Genesis 1.2

IT IS front page news when there is a power outage in the Big Apple or in London. The suffering the commuters undergo when the power failure catches them by surprise is narrated in reams of paper. But we belong to a different stock and take a stoic view of things.

We see a silver lining in every cloud: the fact that one can predict when power will fail on a particular day, thanks to the existence of a schedule according to which power cuts are imposed in different localities, is a blessing, concede many. As a result, while at home, we do not have to scurry around in search of candles, for we keep our emergency lights ready, says a housewife. We can also plan our evenings accordingly, avoiding visits to localities when they are on the power off mode.

Some overcome the adversity by purchasing a genset or an inverter, an option not open to many. What do the vast majority who have no choice but to grin and bear it do?

Power cut does have a positive side too, as young Dr Pillai whose wife too is in the medical profession would vouchsafe. Their six-year old Rina had attention deficit hyperactive disorder. The reason: the parents, busy in their own professions, had not been spending quality time with their only child. Power cuts have done the trick: thanks to the power cut, the doctor couple are compelled to take a forced break from the consultation rooms. They spend a few light moments with Rina who is now back to her old self.

To the ilk that believes that power cuts can make you philosophical belongs small-time poet Vijayan. You utilise the time to ponder over existentialist problems, consider the riddles of nature and generally mull over issues that defy solution.

Joseph, a senior executive working in the administrative office of an insurance company used to late hours in the office takes a well-deserved break during the dark hours. He walks down the stairs and ambles along the sidewalk. `It gives me an opportunity to take stock of the situation, review the day's work and plan the next day's forays. 'People use the time for activities which do not need electrical energy. Uma uses the half hour fruitfully to practise on the veena. Power cuts have interfered, though only slightly, with the routine of John. A middle-aged executive, he usually spends most of the evening with his library books. Nowadays he has his `power nap for exactly 29 minutes', he says.

Power cuts have brought the family together, says Aliyar. As soon as he returned from office, he would turn a couch potato, with his wife joining him soon, after making the preparations for cooking the dinner. The children would be in their room with the homework. The only time the family was together was at the dining table. Power cuts have changed all that. The TV is off, the children cannot read and now a pattern has emerged: the kids would huddle around the father who would talk to them about everything under the sun.

Essential lighting is provided by the inverter in the district sales office of the large corporate citizen, but the boss-man chooses not to work in such light, says Sheela, his secretary. He has instructed her to schedule all his telephone calls to his dealers and sales force for that half an hour.

A variation of this pattern is seen in the regional office of a private bank in the city. There is a genset, but its rating supports just the service lighting and a couple of ceiling fans. About five minutes before the area plunges into darkness, preparations begin to shut down the computers. As soon as the genset takes over the power supply, the key functionaries assemble in the conference hall adjoining the Regional Manager's room. For the next half an hour, they discuss development of business, intensifying the recovery process and enhancing profitability. `We are so used to power cuts that on the stray weekday when there is no power cut, we are pleasantly surprised,' says a city resident. `This is so, particularly when it happens on days which are not well-known festive days like Vishu, Bakrid, Onam, etc.' chimes his wife. She sees the puzzled look and elaborates, `Like last Saturday when there was no power cut because the next day was the Pulse Polio Sunday.' `And the week before the SSLC examinations,' adds their teenage daughter.

When electricity cuts are rare in several other states, why is it that it has come to stay in our state? What exactly is wrong with our power supply? A keen observer of the situation can see that the problem is not in generation but in the distribution. Does one foresee an end to the crisis? Not in the near future. Will corporatisation of the Electricity Board prove to be the magic wand? One tends to be pessimistic: `Hardly, for it is the same old people who will be doing the work in the same old way they are used to.'

So folks, brace up for continued darkness on the horizon....

Do You Speak English?

PARADOXICAL, IS it not, that Daler Mehndi who set the entire world foot-tapping to his balle, balle Bhangra numbers is facing the music? The charge? He extracted vast sums of money from unsuspecting villagers, promising to help them make the `phoren' their home.

The ultimate ambition of the average Punjabi is to migrate to `Ken-da' (Canada, for us) or settle in Southall, London. It is this dream that several wheeler-dealers cash upon. Even in small towns in Punjab such as Moga, Khanna and Doraha, you find holes-in-the-wall outfits offering courses in spoken English - an evidence of the dream being capitalised on. The USP of some teaching centres is that their English teachers belong to Kerala. `South Indian (sic) English taught here', proclaim the signs displayed in some others.

They believe that Keralites are good at English. And with good reason: sometime ago, Malayalis comprised the majority of typists and stenographers working in north India. Proficiency in the language was the key factor in the success of several senior executives who started out as `writers' and clerks. Not for nothing that the north Indians look up to Keralites for success in scaling the ladder of hierarchy.

This is why, at the beginning of every academic year, the Joginder Singhs and the Anita Bhallas of Punjab come in droves to convents and schools run by nuns and missionaries from Kerala. The Punjabi would give his right arm to get the young sardar admitted to any of these hallowed institutions. The parents believe that it would make the child speak the white man's language with enviable fluency and proper diction.

All this awe for the Keralite and his ability is totally misplaced, discovered the UP-born honcho of a prominent firm in Technopark during a group discussion that formed part of the process of recruitment of young engineers. When the topic was announced, most of the participants hemmed and hawed and none spoke up.

He observes, "Fresh graduates from the most prestigious engineering colleges find it difficult to make a cogent presentation even on technical topics they are familiar with."
They are technically sound, can explain it all in Malayalam to their colleagues, but are tongue-tied when it comes to English.

In another group discussion, the subject, `The rights of the tribals', had topical relevance, coming as it did close on the heels of the Muthanga episode. A participant, not stuck for words, broke the ice and began, "The gonemend should be serious about imblemending the promises and providing the fundamendal needs of the tribal people." If some cannot speak, some speak atrocious English.

The written expression is worse. "I give them a simple test. I ask them to spell the word `vacuum', which they would have studied in high school physics. Nine out of ten come up with `vaccum'," says the head of the Technopark firm. Ditto for `certainty' (spelt as `certainity') and `enmity' (`enemity' or, worse still, `enimity').

There is an eternal battle between `extend' and `extent', `send' and `sent', `remainder' and `reminder'. The list is endless, points out Colonel Pillai who had spotted a `loadge' that offers accommodation. Veteran journalist Pani says, "We are very creative when it comes to words such as `recordical', `feminity' and `palacious', which convey the intended sense but do not find a place in the dictionary."

At an interview with the Railways, a candidate was asked what she knew about pyramid. She responded confidently, "A huge triangular cube found in Egypt." Though she was a little short on exactitude, the scholars on the panel thought she had to be awarded full marks for creativity!
If the receptionist-cum-telephone operator at a hotel in the city finds that the guest you want to speak to is not in, she might want to know who called so that a message can be passed on to him. Her query, "May I know your good name, please", in a bid to be polite, would appear to be particularly north Indian. An extension of this is the extra polite request for one's "good number".

Talking of telephone calls, a well-known journalist wanted to speak to a Minister. The Minister's personal assistant identified the voice of the scribe and informed him, "The Minister is on the sofa with a foreigner." And he tentatively queried, "Should I disturb him?"

"Any lesser pressman would have come up with the scoop splashed on the next day's paper, but I had greater confidence in the Minister's moral fibre than in the proficiency of the assistant in English!" chuckles the journalist.

Even newspapers, which, the earlier generations of teachers would recommend to their students as a means of improving their command over the language, contain glaring errors. Referring to the controversy over the non-inclusion of a film in the competition section of the forthcoming International Film Festival of Kerala, a newspaper had said that the film, made on a shoestring, had failed when released theatrically. "Theatrically indeed!" scoffs Professor Vijayalakshmi. She refers to another hilarious statement she came across in her long career, "Shakespeare lived in Windsor with his merry wives, writing tragedies, comedies and errors."

English, as everyone knows, is a little illogical in spelling, pronunciation and usage. It is these nuances that make the language charming, says a logophile.

Karavadia, a Gujarati businessman, says a similar situation was faced by his State. Though Gujarat is advanced in several industries such as textiles, cement, petroleum, chemicals and fertilisers, the sunrise industry, Information Technology, has eluded it. Puzzled, the Government commissioned a study a few years ago. It traced the contradiction to the lack of working knowledge of, leave alone proficiency in, English, among job-seekers. This immediately set off an alarm and English was introduced as a subject from Class III. It is too early to assess the impact, but everyone is optimistic.

Recall the recent reports that West Bengal proposes to introduce English in Class I. `Capitalist' Gujarat and `socialist' West Bengal have learnt the lesson the hard way - that English can be ignored only at one's own peril. We, in Kerala, still believe that xenophobia is another word for patriotism.

My dear Miss

It was a moment for nostalgia. It was the occasion to go back to one's teenage years, the time to taste the joys of calf-love, relive the crushes on sweet young things, the infatuation for the younger among the teachers and to laugh over the follies of the youth. The occasion was the centenary of the college. The landmark year was being celebrated with pomp and show.

Alumni had converged from all parts of the country, nay, the world. Thomaskutty, a thriving businessman in the town where the college was located, thought it fit to host a dinner for his classmates. It was a reunion of sorts of the class of '67. Some had not changed at all, but, for a receding hairline or a streak of grey or a balding pate. Given the changes that time had wrought on the faces and the figures of some of those present, failure to recognise them was pardonable. A few such had to be introduced to the group.

The distance of three decades and half that separated them and their college days soon melted away. Tentative smiles transformed into firm handshakes and soon into embraces. Pleasantries over, like-minded people gravitated towards each other. There was this Indo-Anglican author of moderate success in with his fan following. A miniature of the Chamber of Commerce meeting was progressing in another corner, presided over by the seafood exporter. Prakash Menon, a surgeon in Middlesex, formed the nucleus of a small group.

Menon was holding forth on life in the United Kingdom. After a while, the topic veered round to the linguistic nuances. "Englishmen are proud of their language, but, they are not that obsessed with the grammar," he said. "On the contrary, it is the Indians, who have a fetish about English. They say India is the only place where the average man can write reasonably correct English," he added. "Native speakers of English are not as bothered about the correctness of the words, expressions or grammar as we are," he said. But, they are sticklers in matters of social grace and good manners. "True," agreed Akbar, an executive with a Calcutta (it had not become Kolkata) company. In amplification, he pulled out an episode of the `A Hundred Years Ago' column in `The Statesman.' Somebody who answered to the name `Chunder Coomari Dassgoopta' (the way they spelt names those days might look a little odd today), had asked the editor why he had to conclude letters with `I remain your most obedient servant, etc.' when, he averred, `I am neither your servant nor obedient.'

The honoured member of the great pantheon of those who wielded the blue pencil for `The Statesman,' an Englishman, stiff upper lip and all, had a terse and cryptic reply.
`My Dear Miss Dassgoopta, For the same reason as I address you like this though you are neither mine nor dear to me.'

The entire group broke into a collective and whole-hearted guffaw.

It was getting late, time to call it a day.

Quoting the Devil

Think of him as Mark Twain's forgotten brother. Both lived remarkably similar lives, were good friends, and lived in San Francisco around the same time. Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce (1842-1914), however, followed a path different from that of his more famous contemporary. While both shared a good sense of humour and were on par in terms of their genius, fans of Bierce swear that he was clearly the better when it came to wit. Public figures quaked in fear of his satirical pen.

Newspaper sales soared and over the years, many of his pot shots and jabs at the establishment appeared in local newspapers. These were later collected into the `Devil's Dictionary', one of the 19th century's greatest satirical works. It belongs to a tradition much closer to the realm of the literary, journalistic and satirical than to the lexicographic and academic. `Bitter Bierce' was quite famous back then, but today only academicians know about him. His name figures often in the list of `Quotable Quotes'. Some of his definitions are popular even to this day, but most of them are attributed to the ubiquitous `anon'. The sad fact is that arguably the biggest misanthrope and the greatest realist of all times is not in the spotlight where he belongs. Bierce is certainly one of the most under-appreciated authors and journalists of all time.

This acerbic satirist believed that the dictionary was a `device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic'. He defined wit as `the salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.' In Genesis, `Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field', but Bierce's `Devil' redefined them. To him, the mule was an after thought of God, `an animal that Adam did not name'. The origin of the word `adder', he, in his mock-scholarly style, says, is `from its habit of adding funeral outlays to the other expenses of living'. An abstainer, according to him, is `a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure'. A total abstainer is `one who abstains from everything but abstention'.

While absurdity is `a statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion', the brain is `an apparatus with which we think that we think'. An acquaintance is `a person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to'.

It is a truism we all know (and practise), but it takes Bierce to define the degree of friendship -- slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous. Admiration is `our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves'. He lived in different times and in a different country, but his definition of legislator as `a person who goes to the capital of his country to increase his own', is perhaps as valid now as then. Though Dr Samuel Johnson gave the `punster' the short shrift, dismissing him as a `low wit, who endeavours at reputation by double meaning', Bierce revelled in it. According to the second part of his definition, tongue in cheek, he says the elected representative is `one who makes laws and money.'

There is, of course, an insinuation behind the uncharitable definitions, but then that is the modus operandi of the `devil'. Bureaucracy, religion and women -- three of Bierce's favourite targets, were predictably mauled by his vitriolic pen. This is evident even while defining `male' as a `member of the unconsidered or negligible sex', or `mammon' as `the God of the world's leading religion', or `mouse' as `an animal which strews its path with fainting women'. His explanatory statements were often even more hilarious, such as the `male' of the human race is commonly known (to the female) as `mere man'. Describing the politician as `an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared', he adds, `when he wriggles, he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive'.

Displaying his wry sense of humour, he describes `alliance' as `the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third'. An `ambidextrous' person is `able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left', Bierce defines. Some of the definitions are terse, but delightful all the same, like `alone' (adj)- in bad company; or actually (adv)- perhaps, possibly; or really (adv)- apparently; once (adv)- enough. Readers of `Finnegans Wake' would enjoy finding `shebrew' as a `female Hebrew'.

He never spared a chance to poke fun at himself, as he did when he described a lexicographer as `a pestilent fellow who, under the pretence of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.' Going by his definitions, Bierce could be called a `cynic' whom he defined thus -- a blackguard whose faulty vision causes him to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.

The `Devil's Dictionary' was begun in a weekly paper in 1881, and was continued in a desultory way for long. It was not until 1906 that a large part of it was published under the title of ` The Cynic's Word Book'. The power to reject or happiness to approve the name was not to the lot of Bierce. This more reverent title had previously been forced by the religious scruples of the last newspaper (which did not want to use the word devil) in which a part of the work had appeared. The copyright on the book has expired and one of the recent editions cautions the reader thus: `Since the material here represents the view of one individual and was written in the early years of this century, there will no doubt be material here that you will find sexist, nationalist, racist, or just generally offensive. Proceed at your own risk.' Don't say you were not warned.

Mother of All Strategies

One of the new-fangled tools that vendors of products and services employ these days is telemarketing. Few might realise that like time-share, medical transcription, online trading, flexi-time and debit cards, this has also been brought to our country by globalisation.

Telemarketers are very aggressive; it is difficult to shake them off. They are on the prowl all the time and seem to know when the prospective victim is at his most vulnerable. For, that is the time they choose to strike. It is thus that the unsuspecting victim engages the caller in a dialogue and ... well, one thing leads to another. Often, before you can say `telemarketing', you have agreed to part with a `green Gandhi' (this, we are told, is how the underworld refers to the Rs. 500 currency note) in exchange for an electric feeding bottle warmer.

As you open the parcel, your wife informs you that the principal of the upmarket school has consented to admit your only son to Class I in the next academic year. This is when you wake up to realising that in your most optimistic estimate, the first opportunity to put your newly acquired gadget to use would not arrive a day sooner than 2023!

A few people this writer knows have, over the years, developed their own devices to tackle the unsolicited and abhorred call. On realising that it is a telemarketer at the other end, you have other options than screaming `Oh! My God' and hanging up. The techniques referred to have been employed with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, a caveat: none of them is a sure-fire remedy, because telemarketers are, as a class, a tenacious lot!

When Jose discovers that a telemarketer is at the other end of the line, he tells the caller he is busy at the moment and asks if the telemarketer would give him his home phone number. "I'll call you back late in the evening," Jose promises helpfully. When the caller explains that telemarketers cannot do this, he asks, "I guess you don't want anyone bothering you at home, right?" The telemarketer will agree and then Jose would say, "Me too!" and proceed to restore the receiver to its rightful place.

It is difficult to believe that the mild-mannered Bharathan used the trick he claims to have used. But, for record's sake, here it is. After the telemarketer had exhausted her spiel, he asked her if she would marry him. When the caller got all flustered, he told her that that the strict instructions of the credit card company were that you should not give your credit card number to a complete stranger. One way to get over the difficulty is for her to cease to be a stranger by marrying him!

Opinions might be sharply divided on the extent of sadism involved in the method adopted by R. S. Pillai. Depending on the time of the call, Pillai would say it is breakfast/brunch/lunch/high tea/dinner time, but would the caller hold. Pillai would then put the caller on his speakerphone, while he would continue to eat at his leisure. "Smack your food loudly, chew the drumstick, chomp on the meat, suck the marrow off the bones, and continue with your dinner conversation," he suggests. For added effect, clanging of cutlery and dishes is recommended. Though it is not polite to belch in public, Pillai says you could be pardoned if a telemarketer is within earshot, though in absentia.

Mohamed Yasin uses another sadistic tactic. He just says `No' over and over again. Be sure to vary the sound of each negation, and keep a rhythmic tempo, even as the other party is trying to speak. "This is great fun," assures Mohamed, "if you can do it until the caller hangs up." If it is a telemarketer of credit cards, it would be a brilliant idea to enquire whether a card would be issued to a person whose prayer for bankruptcy was being heard by the court next week, says a satisfied experimenter. This method is as effective as a cane for a child throwing tantrums.

If the caller says she is Jyoti P. Nair from XYZ Company, Kurien suggests, ask her to spell her name. Jyoti or Jyothi? Does she spell her surname as Nair or Nayar? Then ask her to spell the name of the company and describe its logo. Then ask her where it is located, how long it has been in business, how many people work there, how they got into this line of work. Continue asking them questions about their company for as long as necessary (Read, till Jyoti or Jyothi Nair or Nayar runs off to Siberia.) Ask them to repeat everything they say, several times, suggests Suresh. Tell them you are hard of hearing and that they need to speak up... louder... Louder!... LOUDER! L... O...U...D... E...R! You could also tell them to talk very slowly, because you want to write every word down. His brother Ramesh asks the unsolicited caller to fax the information, and gives the number of his former employer who gave him the unceremonious sack.

Like Alexander Fleming's invention of penicillin, it was serendipity that Saraswati Amma has to thank for developing her ruse. She got a call one morning and was greeted, "Is that you Amma? How are you today?" The voice sounded very much like her newly-married grandchild, now in Shimoga with her husband. The granny responded, "Ammu, it is your ammoomma. How dare you call me by name? But I'm so glad you called. No one these days seems to care, and I have all these problems. My arthritis is acting up, my eyelashes are sore, my cow Nandini just died.... " When the telemarketer could put in a word edgewise, she identified herself, but by then, a strategy was born!

A variant of this is to cry out in surprise, "Mohan? Is that you? Oh my God! Mohan, how have you been?" This may give Mohan a few brief moments of terror as he tries to figure out how you know him. Another avatar of this gambit is to insist that the caller is really your long-lost pal Arundhati from Kolkata, playing a joke. "Come on, Aru, cut it out! Seriously, Aru, how is aunty? And how's Doel doing in XLRI? And uncle?"

An eerie response to the caller from a company that cleans carpets would be "Can you remove bloodstains? Can you get out rabbit blood? How about human blood?" The efficacy is guaranteed, unless the caller watches X-files on the TV and reads Roald Dahl alone at midnight.

Lakshmanan has a bait that at least one telemarketer bit. He said he too worked for the same company in its Saharanpur office and was on leave for his sister's wedding. Lakshmanan can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo, but the telemarketer obviously did not want to carry coal to Newcastle.

So, the next time the telephone bell rings, and it rings for thee, what will be your ploy?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Veera Pandya Katta Bomman

Paulose took just one look at the lone letter that the postman had brought in as his personal mail, and, crumpling it, tossed it into the waste-bin. Suresh, who was sitting next to him, observed this rather uncharacteristic action on the part of the usually mild-mannered Paulose. Suresh, who too had received an identical missive, knew that it was the monthly newsletter from the film society. It had said that the classic Tamil film, `Veera Pandya Katta Bomman', was to be screened that weekend.

At lunch break, Suresh asked Paulose about going for the Sivaji Ganesan starrer. "I'm not coming," Paulose reacted sharply. They had been colleagues for over a decade and had become close friends. Paulose was a great fan of Sivaji Ganesan and would often wax eloquent on the thespian's histrionics. But the way Paulose was behaving indicated that there was something wrong somewhere. Suresh decided to probe. It was clear that the very mention of the name of the movie irritated him.

Suresh discovered that Paulose hated the movie because of its unpleasant association with his SSLC examination. The generally reticent and modest Paulose opened up.

His father belonged to a poor family and the financial problems facing the family had compelled him to discontinue his college studies and take up a job. His father was a strict disciplinarian, ever so demanding. He had high hopes of his son, and expected nothing less than the best from him. He had nurtured dreams of a prosperous life with the son occupying a high position in the government.

The world of Paulose consisted of school and home on weekdays and church on Sundays. The Martinet of his father allowed him no games or entertainment. "Study hard now. You have all the time in the world for entertainment and fun," he would say. Nobody at home dared challenge his fiat. The punishment for mischief was a good spanking followed by crouching under the cot "till I let you out".

On the day the examination got over, his friends in school had decided, they would go for the matinee show of the movie, `Veera Pandya Katta Bomman' in the nearby Royal Theatre. (Paulose recalled that `The Bible' was the only movie he had seen till then.) Young Paulose had obtained the consent of his father through the proper channel, his mother.

"My father was to work on the morning shift that week, but he exchanged it with a colleague so that when I returned after the examination, he would be there to check how I had performed. So anxious was he about me," said Paulose.

The subject of the examination was Mathematics. The two-hour paper consisted of three parts -- arithmetic, algebra and geometry. The choice was limited. Arithmetic contained questions worth 48 marks, but the maximum one could score was 40. In the other two parts, one could score not more than 30 marks each out of questions worth 36 marks. One could, theoretically, score 120 marks out of 100! Though choice was available, Paulose had done all the sums and he was confident about his answers. As directed by his father, he had noted down the answers against each question on the question paper. Paulose's father snatched the paper and worked out all the sums while the boy was tucking in his lunch.

He was happy with his son's performance: he had attempted all the questions, though choice was offered, and all of them were right. As he was about to return the question paper to Paulose, his father's eyes fell on the answer 242 sq ft scribbled against a question on the volume of a cylinder. It was numerically correct, but the unit of volume being cubic feet, the correct answer, obviously, had to be 242 cft. He asked Paulose, "Did you write cft or sq ft?"

"I think I wrote cft in the answer paper, father, but while copying it on to the question paper, maybe I made a mistake," Paulose answered. His father was not satisfied. "So careless of you! How can you be so reckless?" he asked. Apart from administering corporal punishment for the lapse, he ordered Paulose to forego the movie and crouch under the cot "till I ask you to come out".

When his friends came to take Paulose, he was still awaiting deliverance from under the cot. He never got to see the movie that day. It is a different matter that he came out with flying colours, but the scar the incident had left on the young mind was so deep that the very mention of the movie brought back unpleasant memories; he had sworn never to see the movie.

The Perfect Alibi

There was a recent report in the newspapers about a smart lawyer rescuing his client from the long arm of law. The lawyer proved to the satisfaction of the Court that on the day his client was alleged to have committed the crime, he had been in Chhattisgarh.

This was the topic of discussion among the retired hands, taking an evening stroll on the Museum grounds. "This reminds me of Jasbir Singh," said one of them. "Jasbir? What about him?" the others were all ears.

"This was in the early Nineties. To be exact, in 1991," said the raconteur, satisfied that he had secured a small audience. "Terrorism was on the wane in Punjab in those days, but the police were still active with the night patrol. Back then, we were all members of the century-old Rajindra Club in Patiala. We had a party to celebrate my promotion. It was a Saturday. One drink led to another. Finally, in the wee hours, we called it a day. As usual, Jasbir, the party animal, had more drinks than he could handle. We told him we would escort him home, but the burly sardar would have none of it."

"No, I live just three km away. I can take care of myself," he said, switching on the ignition key.

"We watched his car zoom out of the parking lot, zip past the gate as the gatekeeper ran for cover. Jasbir raced his car through the tree-lined road on the club campus and disappeared into the darkness.

Once on the main road, he was seen weaving through the deserted road. The police signalled to him to slow down, but Jasbir did not. The police caught up with Jasbir and blocked his path. The two policemen asked him to get out of the car and walk to their jeep.

They demanded the papers. Just as the officers began to question Jasbir, a series of gunshots was heard from the neighbourhood. The policemen told Jasbir to stay put. "We'll be right back", they said and jumped over a fence and ran down the field in the direction of the gunshots. Jasbir waited for about 15-minutes but there was no sign of the cops.

A sozzled and sleepy Jasbir finally drove home. When he reached his home, he told his wife, Mohinder Kaur, that he was going to bed. He also told her that in case someone came looking for him she was to tell them that he was down with viral fever and had been in bed all day. This was his alibi.

A few hours later, the police officers knocked on their door. They asked Mohinder where Jasbir was and said they wanted to see him. She told the police officers what her husband had told her to say. They demanded that they be shown his car. Eventually, Mohinder took them to the garage and opened the door. There was the police jeep, with the blue light on its hood still flashing!

Anagrammatically Speaking

A schoolboy riddle: How do you make a lemon bigger?
The answer: Make an anagram of it: you get a melon.

Damodar Menon, Human Resource executive in a Chennai-based software company, was cut up. And with good reason. A long-time pal of his had sent an e-mail with copies to a dozen common friends, incorporating more than 20 anagrams of his name, including `A Damned Moron', `A Modern Nomad' and `Marooned! Damn!' That there were less obnoxious ones like `Moon And Dream', `Man, Do Dream on!' and `Mad dream? No, No' did not pacify him. Damu need not have taken umbrage. This friend of his has equally uncomplimentary anagrams for others -- like `Evil's Agents' for `Evangelists' and `Woman Hitler' for `Mother-in-law'. `Adolf Hitler' is `Hated For Ill'. It is not as if he has a perverted mind when it comes to anagrams. Take `Margaret Thatcher', for instance. It transforms into `That Great Charmer'. Or `Clint Eastwood' that becomes `Old West Action'.

It is a little-known fact that the author of `Alice in Wonderland' was a great mathematician too. Officially called Charles Ludwig Dodgson, he wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll. Even less known is the fact that he formed the anagram `Flit on, Cheering Angel!' from the name

`Florence Nightingale'. Would you not agree that `HMS Pinafore' is the `Name of a ship'? Only the mentally deranged would think, however, that `Funeral' is `Real Fun'.

At a restaurant, when a member of the hospitality staff comes up with the suggestion `A Stew, sir?' she might little realise that her polite query is an anagram of her vocation - `Waitress!'
`Astronomers' would not like the idea that a mutation of the word is `No More Stars'. The word `Violence' turns into `Nice Love' and `Festival' into `Fast Evil'. Quarantine areas are `Contaminated' and hence `No Admittance'. The answer to the question "What do `The Eyes' do?" is hidden there: obviously, `They See'.

All of us would nod in agreement that `Vile' is `Evil'. The British would be proud that `Old England' is `Golden Land'.

Back home, typos are known to have transformed `Aparna Sivadasan' into `Arpana Sadasivan'. Some of the Indian cities now have the easily recognised and popular yellow and black sign of the money transfer agents `Estern Union' -- a common sight on the financial streets abroad. They would be delighted that an anagram of their name is `No Wire Unsent' - a testimony that theirs is a failsafe mechanism for sending money telegraphically.

Experts say that longer strings are more amenable to formation of anagrams. At the hands of an adept, the proverb `A Stitch In Time Saves Nine' becomes `This is meant as an incentive'.
One of the best anagrams is the one formed from the phrase `To Cast Pearls Before The Swine' - `One's Labour Is A Perfect Waste'.

Words, Words, Words...

Anyone will tell you that a nanosecond is a tiny fraction of a second: a billion nanos make a second and if you ask him what an `ohnosecond' is, he will most probably draw a blank. For the benefit of those who are curious, it is that minuscule fraction of time between your doing something with utmost confidence and realising that you have goofed it up -- making a `Big' mistake like putting the only copy of your rich aunt's will into the paper shredder instead of the photocopier.

Today's corporate world abounds in such jargon. What is a `cube farm'? An office filled with cubicles. `Pink slips' and `golden handshakes' may soon be things of the past, with the winds of recession blowing over. An `Alpha geek' is the most knowledgeable, technically proficient person around.

The acronym `Sitcom' is not the situational comedy that appears on the small screen with predictable regularity. The word represents what yuppies, who have taken a housing loan, turn into when one of them stops working to stay home with kids. It stands for `Single income, two children and oppressive mortgage'.

Such people look for a `Good job' - a `Get-out-of-debt' job, which pays well; these jobs are ones that people would quit as soon as they are `solvent' again. And those employees who are suspected of planning to leave the company soon for greener pastures are called `flight risks'. But, let us start, as Maria sang to the Von Trapp kids in `The Sound of Music', "at the very beginning". With `A' for `Adminisphere', the rarefied organisational layer beginning just above the rank and file. Decisions that fall from the `adminisphere' are often profoundly inappropriate or irrelevant to the problems they were designed to solve.

`B' is for `blamestorming', younger brother of `brainstorming' where the blame for missing the deadline or a flopped project gets apportioned. This leads us to `C', as in `chainsaw consultants', the outside experts brought in to trim the flab, leaving the boss with clean hands. `Ice' age has contributed liberally to the newspeak. The number `404' stands for someone who is clueless. The link is to the World Wide Web error message `404-URL not found'. For instance it is used thus: Don't bother asking him...he is `404' man.

A person rendered ineffective because he is burnt-out is said to be `swiped out'. Like an ATM or credit card that has been rendered useless because the magnetic strip is worn off from extensive use. `Career limiting move' (CLM), an expression popular among micro-serfs, describes an activity you are ill-advised to indulge in. Trashing your boss within earshot is a serious CLM. Another of the favourite phases of the geeks is `mouse potato' - the on-line, wired generations' answer to the couch potato.

However much you may try, you cannot avoid `irritainment', which are entertainment and media spectacles that are annoying, and you find yourself unable to stop watching them. Live telecast of the proceedings of the law-making bodies or some of those prime time, tear-jerker serials comprise `irritainments'.

Some of the expressions are reflections of the times we live in. A `starter marriage' is a short- lived first marriage that ends in divorce with no kids, no property and no regrets. And an `um... friend' is a companion of dubious standing or a concealed intimate relationship, as in `This is Lisa,'.

Many of the expressions can be traced to animals. A `stress puppy' is a person who is whiny and seems to thrive on being stressed out. Bosses are happy to have `idea hamsters', people who always seem to have their idea `generators' running. When someone yells or drops something loudly in a cube farm, people's heads pop up over the walls to see what is going on. This is called `prairie dogging'.

Some of the phrases are off-colour. A `seagull manager' is one who flies in, makes a lot of noise, messes up everything and then leaves like a seagull, which litters the beach with its droppings. If you spend an entire day working against all odds, only to get blamed or punished, you are said to have had a `Salmon day'. This is a throwback to the habit of salmons which swim upstream to the warm waters to mate and die in the end. Profane or civil, these words do have their role in enriching the language.

Of Garb and Barb

IT WAS a hot summer day in May in the late 1960's -- three decades before Badagara became Vatakara. The sleepy little town woke up to the sight of a young man walking purposefully towards its central section. Attired differently from those around, he commanded the attention of all eyes.

He located the building with the signboard in blue enamel, much like the signboards of T. A. S. Pattanam Podi and the Life Insurance Corporation of India. It was his first day in the bank where he had been offered appointment as an officer. Vijayakumar was born and brought up in Hyderabad and had worked for a few years in Mumbai. He knew that executives were required to conform to a dress code -- though power-dressing had not become buzzword yet -- and had worn a pin-striped shirt with a pair of cuff-links, a conservative tie and a deep blue suit.

Govinda Menon, the branch manager, a portly old gentleman, got up from his seat and welcomed him, for such a person could not obviously be taken lightly. It could be a big boss whom he did not know, an inspecting official from the Reserve Bank or a tycoon who had strayed into the bank. Whoever he was, he was important. Introductions over, he was directed to Prakash Mullassery who had joined the bank a year earlier and to whom Vijayakumar would be understudy to.

One of the first things he told Vijayakumar was that in this part of the country, only medical representatives and mad men wore suits. Prakash recalls that it took some time for him to `educate' the novitiate who was rather puritanical in his conviction about sartorial propriety.
That was one end of the spectrum. The experience Varadarajan narrated was of a different type.

A middle level officer then, he was assigned the task of surprise verification of a one-man branch of the bank located in a suburban coastal village. After banking hours, the officer-in-charge had all the afternoon to write up the accounts for the day. When Varadarajan reached the branch, it was past banking hours.

The verification exposed nothing untoward on the official front. The report of Varadarajan, however, had an innocuous comment, "The officer-in-charge is advised to be properly attired during non-banking working hours". Pressed for elaboration of what transpired to be the understatement of 1971, Varadarajan confided, "When I went in, he was seated in his chair, legs resting on the table, wearing a thin towel around his midriff and anointing himself liberally with balaaguluchyaadi oil." That was the other extreme.

Somewhere in the middle of these preferences is the story of Mammen Joseph. In 1974, on the anniversary of the formation of Kerala, Mammen, another probationary officer, reported for work in Kollam branch in a voile jubba, ecru-coloured double dhoti and sandals that squeaked, wearing a gold chain round his neck. Sebastian, the branch manager, espied, sitting in his cabin, the young officer walk into the office.

Before he settled down at his desk, Mammen was summoned and Sebastian thundered, "Have you come for work or for a wedding reception?"

Trembling like a leaf, Mammen mumbled something about Kerala Day but the boss would have none of it. Mammen was bundled out of the office with instructions to get back "decently dressed".

Can you imagine how martinets such as Sebastian would have reacted to find young men in office wearing fluorescent shirts or sleeveless T-shirts or with an adornment on just one of his ears? Or a sweet young thing in body-hugging skivvies and knee-tickling skirts? To say that he would have revolted is to state the obvious. But then, he'd have to hold his horses, for these twenty-somethings are only practising what they have been doing in IIMs and other hallowed temples of lofty management education they have graduated from.

They have seen photographs of students of Harvard and Kellogg's Business Schools in bermudas and shaggy T-shirts. If Wharton and Yale are doing it, can Gurgaon and Jamshedpur be far behind? But then little do they know that even the top B-schools in India have realised that bohemianism is passé and have reverted to a code of conduct in this area, though not too rigid.

The unconventionality is not limited to matters sartorial. The puritans find the way the youngsters speak on the telephone and greet customers distasteful. Maj. Pillai just cannot stand the direct sales agents who address him by his initials, lopping off both his rank and his surname in one fell swoop. Mrs. Menon says, "The casual-sounding `Yeah' from the service-station which takes care of my limousine is off-putting, to say the least."

Westernised youngsters sprinkle their conversation with numerous scatological references that might have been fashionable in colleges but not in formal settings. So much so that when the participant in a popular quiz programme on the telly realised in the `oh-no-second' that the answer she blurted turned out to be wrong, she spat out the forbidden word.

Haven't we often come across those who pepper their conversation with expletives, reminding us of the Watergate tapes which, with `expletives deleted', it is said, would shrink to one-fourth its size? A member of the team deputed by the reputed software development company to the U.S., Sharad Kumar Saxena had seen colleagues, seniors and juniors alike, addressing each other by first names, such as Martin, Phyllis, not Mr Baker and Miss Stone, leave alone `sirring' the boss as we do in Indian offices at the drop of a hat. He too picked up the habit and imported it to India when he was assigned the leader's role in a project in India. Soon enough, Saxena realised that we tend to exploit that air of informality and convert it into a back-slapping kind of familiarity and banter. "On the contrary, most of us like to address our bosses as Gops or Sam or Krish or whatever, but do not want to be Ash or Neddy to our juniors," argues Ashwin Nedungadi, another geek.

"It is not that, by any stretch of imagination," says Jaya John. "My boss discovers by chance that I am known in the family circles as Ammu and tucks away that information in the folds of his brain. When he extracts it and addresses me as Ammu in inter-departmental meetings, I seethe with rage as if he has made a pass at me!"

Sophie, a paramedic in a big private hospital, had to make a conscious effort, she admits, to avoid the `Yaar' from her conversations with doctors, patients and their relatives. Though belonging to the `me-generation' that describes itself as bindaas, she was quick to see the point when a senior surgeon dropped a subtle hint that each profession has its own convention in the choice of words and salutations.

For every Sophie, there are a dozen others who do not realise that words like `S-a-l-a-h!' are a strict no-no in the pristine portals of centenarian institutions where everyone has to be prim and propah. If some find the language unacceptable, it is the body language -- whether it is the manner of banging the briquette of cassata on the table or flinging the small change with your purchase across the counter -- that others find offensive.

There is a subtle difference between informality and disrespect, as pointed out at a prestigious hotel by an elderly guest who ticked off an employee for being too informal for his liking.
There is an object lesson in protocol and propriety, dress and demeanour for all of us to learn from that.